Part of an ongoing interventionist project of digital harm reduction, this work is a two-part project where I invest in the removal of violent material culture found online through auction sites and use it as source material to produce lens-based performance works that open conversations around the entanglements of networked culture, tourism, prisons, and image technologies.
Focused on ephemera made during the US colonial occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, this project scans online retailers for images, objects, and ephemera that continue to sustain multiple formations of Pilipinx constraint, in what Catherine Ceniza Choy refers to as “corporeal colonization”, and remove them from the online marketplace through purchase. In many instances, these objects move between collectors across the globe, sometimes several times over a year, revealing market behaviors that value these objects as profitable properties rather than sharing them as a resource. For many retailers selling these objects online, newly acquired private collections of troubling historical ephemera become opportunities to fragment image sets into smaller pieces for individual sale. First edition books get cut up so that image pages can be sold individually while other objects like postcards and singular photos are sold without context, further contributing to the proliferation of what Ricardo Punzalan refers to as an “archival diaspora” of content from this era. Similarly, photos found in national archives or even elsewhere online continue to be copied, scanned, and reprinted on “the highest quality archival photographic paper” to capitalize on the desire for historical spectacles of war and death. Within an economy that profits from the distribution of images, particularly in light of the increased practice of recirculating images of police violence against Black and Brown people through social media, I am concerned with how the space of the auction site (and the servers that host this content) create the formation of temporal tourists that would allow for the reconstruction of colonial affectations of Black and Brown erasure.
As image-objects that normalize the consumption of violent histories and spaces, ones developed under white supremacist values of settler-colonial possession, this project of removal continues the work of what Neema Githere calls “data healing” to respond to the “compounded effects of navigating digital infrastructures created to exploit, categorize, and discard personhood.” While material cultures of Pilipinx constraint are suspended indefinitely in servers online as digital images, they live in the purgatories of search results and haunt our queries with jpegs of abjection. In surveying the offerings that seem readily available from this era on eBay, we begin to notice the staggering amount of ephemera related to or taken within prisons across the archipelago. A strategic site that helped shape prisoners into citizens of the colonial imaginary, the prison system in the Philippines was used to erase Indigenous specificity in favor of white supremacist ideals of “civility.” While retailers are frequently unaware of these histories, they inadvertently contribute to the circulation of these formations of constraint through the digital imaging process needed to authenticate the objects as part of any online sale. Detail shots and images of an object’s condition not only have the potential to enlarge the violence of the content but provide more image data that could potentially exacerbate the harm inflicted. When Githere asks “when does my data become your business?”, she is not only asking us to consider what personal data we share online that becomes profitable for others, but she also gestures to the way histories, stories, and media related to marginalized bodies continue to be extractive within the processes of digitization. In the project of reclamation and repossession of this material culture from the trappings of online circulation, I want to have the ability to shape how these images are used in the future and build different models for engagement through the screen.
To reclaim these histories, I have begun to create images and performances for the camera – or in this case, the scanner bed – where I am mindful of the humans often excluded from the labor of imaging. As caretakers for these objects bound for digital transformation, the image of the hand begins to pull back the fourth wall, shaping how the image of the object is read, shifting the context altogether. No longer a singular object of study, the hand intervenes on historical anthropological practices that placed objects within neutral-toned settings for the sake of categorization and identification, further complicating the frame and focus of intention. In some ways, the hand becomes a different kind of metric, an alternative method of calibration that traces an object with its impact upon the body. I am reminded of Krissy Wilson’s Art of Google Books, a database of image anomalies collected since 2011 based on rephotographed screengrabs of digitized books where we occasionally see the hand of an anonymous worker or pages covered by glitches and debris. While Wilson’s project highlights involuntary disturbances of content, I am drawn to the intentional gesture of refusal as a way to control how a viewer can access this history embedded within material culture. In layering objects as assemblages that redact or obscure the violent content of the images purchased, I can construct a different kind of narrative to reveal broader networks of power that sustain today. Made in parallel with the movement for the removal of racist monuments in public space and with calls to end the circulation of mediated spectacles of Black death, this project extends the work of data healing through removal and recontextualization. It insists on locating other strategies for the futures of digital harm reduction while speculating alternatives for critical engagements with history.